Police chiefs have told MPs that they ‘dread and fear’ government plans to make them monitor and vet the social media behaviour of striking workers.
The proposals are set out in a consultation paper prepared by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as part of the trade union bill currently being discussed by MPs.
The main element in the bill is the raising of the ballot turnout threshold to 50%, but it also includes measures, criticised by some Tory MPs, to require unions to inform the police a fortnight before a strike of the intention to set up a picket. Strikers are also required to tell the police in advance of any plans to use social media in support of a picket line, as well as the content that is planned.
Giving evidence to MPs examining the bill on Thursday, Steve White, the chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said: “Goodness gracious me, that fills me with dread and fear. I have to say, in terms of having to vet tweets in advance, I mean crikey – I don’t think that is anything we want to get involved with.
“I am sorry, I found that quite bizarre. It would be such a massively complex operation and from the police point of a view a dangerous road to go down.”
He added: “It would be a travesty if the police went back to the days of the 70s or the 80s when the police were seen as an arm of a state. We have got to remember that policing in this country is wholly independent of the state. There is not political control of the police.”
Deputy chief constable Charlie Hall, of the National Police Chiefs Council, said it was not appropriate to vet media and he did not know how it could even be implemented. He added: “We do not do it in any other area.”
Hall said he thought the police could only be involved afterwards if a criminal offence had been committed. He said there were already laws against abuse on social media. “I do not believe there is a need for the police to be able to vet or censor social media posts around disputes. We do not control tweets before they go out,” he said.
Hall also rejected proposals that the police should be notified before any picket line was set up. He said: “There is no real need in the vast majority of cases for the police to be involved in policing picketing and industrial disputes, and our stance would be that if we could avoid it we would wish to. Many pickets run without any contact with the police at all. Clearly there are occasions when police need to be involved.”
Asked whether the police should be required to be notified, Hall said: “I don’t see that as absolutely necessary because our view would be those picketing lines would be self-policed.”
But he supported the idea that it would be possible for a senior figure on the picket line to be identified as the point of contact for the police, so that it was possible for individuals to cross picket lines.
White said it was not necessary for leaders of picket lines to be required to wear armbands, as it was not difficult to work out the identity of the person in charge.
Hall added: “The police role must be impartial to whatever the merits in these industrial disputes, without doubt, and that should be maintained and our role has to be balanced. We have got many priorities and policing industrial disputes is not at the top of the list of our priorities.” He said the proposals in the bill would inevitably pull officers from other duties.
A business department spokesman said the government was not planning to put a duty on police to vet union social media, specifically Twitter, during industrial action.
The consultation document states it is considering requiring a striking union to inform police “whether it will be using social media, specifically Facebook, Twitter, blogs, setting up websites and what those blogs and websites will set out.